Joe Paterno received an early birthday present yesterday: a three-year contract extension.

Just five days shy of his 82d birthday, the Penn State coach agreed to a new deal that would "provide for the opportunity of coach Joe Paterno leading the football program through the 2011 season," a statement released by the athletic department said. There was an additional clause in the statement, however, that said, "It was also agreed that the parties might reevaluate their circumstances and alter the arrangement by either shortening or extending its length as necessary."

The clause allows for leeway on both sides, although Paterno, major college football's all-time winningest coach, said last week that "there's no reason for me not to think that I can go for while."

Paterno underwent hip replacement surgery Nov. 23. Last week he walked into Penn State's Rose Bowl media day without assistance and declared that he felt no pain. Because of his ailing right hip, Paterno spent the last seven games of the season coaching from the press box and had to use a cane to get around.

He expects to be coaching from the sidelines, though, when the Nittany Lions face Southern Cal on Jan. 1.

Paterno's contract extension ends months of speculation over the iconic coach's future. His contract was set to expire after this season. But in April, university president Graham Spanier released a statement that talks between both sides would be suspended until after the season.

Spanier had indicated that because of Paterno's unique situation - he was set to begin his 43d season as head coach and 59th at Penn State - he did not need a contract. Even though Paterno went on to have a successful 11-1 season, Spanier continued to insist that discussions would be tabled until January.

The university president had no further comment when reached by e-mail last night.

Paterno said last week that he recently had preliminary talks with athletic director Tim Curley. "If we can work out something that they are comfortable with and I'm comfortable with before the bowl, fine," Paterno said. "I just get tired of recruits asking me, 'How long are you going to be there?' "

Paterno's new deal allows the football program to paint a picture of stability. Yesterday, top-ranked high school quarterback Kevin Newsome of Chesapeake, Va., committed to the Lions.

"I believed it when Coach Paterno said to me, 'God is going to decide [how long] I can coach. Not me,' " said Mark Arcidiacono, an offensive linemen from St. Joseph's Prep who committed to the Lions in the spring.

Paterno, who has a 383-126-3 career record and 23 bowl wins, has admitted that he does not engage in the everyday running of his program as much as he used to. He often works from home and sometimes participates in coaches' meetings via teleconference.

Still, players - past, present and future - were in favor of the extension and felt that Penn State's return to its winning ways warranted a commitment. The Lions are 40-10 over the last four seasons.

"It represents a vote of confidence from the university that he's able to lead the program," said Leo Wisniewski, a former all-American defensive linemen and the father of Stefen, a junior guard. "It's one of the signs that the program is achieving at a high level."

Sean Lee missed this season with a knee injury. But the senior linebacker will return next fall after a medical redshirt season, and he is excited that Paterno will be there, most likely leading the team out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel on opening day.

"I don't think we were worried about it," Lee said. "He doesn't amaze us because we see it every day."

Four years earlier, Spanier, Curley and trustee Steve Garban reportedly visited Paterno at his home near the campus in hopes of setting forth a timetable for his retirement. Even though he was mired in the worst stretch of his career, Paterno staved off those forces.

"We've had a wonderful year," Garban said last night. "I'm delighted with the year. Joe has obviously had a good year. I think [the contract] is in everyone's favor."

Terms of the deal were not announced, but Paterno earned a base salary of $512,664 last season, according to the State Employees' Retirement System. There was no mention made of a succession plan, which has become a recent trend in college football. Florida State, under Bobby Bowden, and Texas, under Mack Brown, have named their successors as head coach for when they retire.

Tom Bradley, Penn State's defensive coordinator, is the likely candidate to follow the seemingly ageless Paterno.

"Nothing would change if [Paterno] wasn't the head coach because a coach like Coach Bradley would still be around," freshman defensive end Pete Massaro said. "I think Bradley should be the next coach. He's the best option."

A message left with Bradley last night was not returned.

Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com.